Eye of the Storm

Rookie Sue Bird has the looks and skills to be the country's next big female sports star. But can she keep women's basketball in Seattle?

Sue Bird doesn't like to wait. It's not that she's impatient; the Seattle Storm's new point guard simply has her own idea of fast. She runs the basketball court like a cheetah, sprinting up and down more quickly than any teammate or opponent, perpetually ready for the ball. With friends, bopping around town, she's always leading the pack, perennially first in line. Bird doesn't stop unless she has to—not for "Don't Walk" signs, not for boys, not for anything.

Bird's new teammates learned this firsthand last week, during an event the Storm bills as its "Player Blitz." The women were dispatched to various spots downtown and instructed to interact with fans along the way. Bird smiled and signed autographs for little kids. She chatted with moms and dads. Then, as she headed from Westlake Center to a rally in Westlake Park, she grabbed teammate Semeka Randall and crossed Pike Street in the middle of oncoming traffic, ignoring a red light and a police officer telling them to stop.

"I could write you up for jaywalking, you know," the cop said sternly, only half-joking.

"Whatever," muttered Bird, after tossing him her best Bette Davis eyes. "I mean, it's not like the cars were gonna hit us."

This is Seattle's newest kid on the block—fun, flip, and, true to her Long Island, N.Y., upbringing, never afraid to jaywalk. After leading the University of Connecticut women's basketball team to an undefeated season and a national championship earlier this year, Bird was tabbed by the Storm in April as the top pick in the WNBA draft. Now, three games into her professional career, expectations are high. On the court, the Storm's general manager and coach, Lin Dunn, hopes that Bird will help the team improve on its league-worst record last year and lead the franchise—in its third season—to its first playoff berth. Off the court, Storm executives hope that Bird can help attract fans to the league's least popular team and have rushed to restructure their entire marketing strategy around her ebullient personality and contagious smile.

Even the WNBA is angling for a piece of Bird; after years of declining revenue and TV ratings, execs at league headquarters in New York are banking on her success at the college level and her bedazzling looks by incorporating her into a nationwide TV advertising campaign that begins this week. With all of this attention, the town's newest hoopster is poised for stardom, both here and across the nation. But unless she succeeds on the court, no amount of recognition may be enough to keep women's basketball afloat.

"It's a tough situation, being thrust under the microscope, dealing with all of the pressures she'll have to face," says Wally Walker, president and CEO of The Basketball Club of Seattle, which owns both the Sonics and the Storm. "She's an amazing young woman, and if anyone can succeed under these circumstances, it's Sue." A Star is Born

Born with a surname that invokes Larry Legend, basketball was pretty much a foregone conclusion for Suzanne Brigit Bird. Like most kids in the suburban town of Syosset, N.Y., she dabbled with soccer, but as a 5-year-old she became a local celebrity entertaining crowds with circus shots during halftime of her older sister's basketball games. After winning state and national championships at Christ the King High School in Queens, she went on to play for the University of Connecticut, where she led the Lady Huskies to two national championships in three years, the last of which capped a 39-0 season in March.

Bird has been rewarded mightily. In addition to winning the prestigious Naismith Player of the Year award for 2002, she notched dozens of other accolades, including the Honda Award for Women's Basketball and her third Conseco/Nancy Lieberman-Cline National Point Guard of the Year. And when Seattle made her the top pick in the WNBA draft on April 19, she was crowned the best prospect in the country.

For Bird, the distinction was "something you dream about your whole life." For the Storm, it was an exciting moment as well—after selecting center Lauren Jackson with the first pick in the 2001 draft, the team now had two No. 1 picks in its starting five. Almost immediately after Bird picked up her No. 10 jersey at Madison Square Garden in New York, team officials back in Seattle began revamping their marketing plans to focus on her. While Jackson had been a difficult sell because of her Australian heritage, they saw the All-American Bird as a slam dunk for improving on the team's league-worst average of fewer than 6,000 fans per game.

"When you consider her success at the college level and the attention she received there, we drafted a great player who already had incredible marketability," says Dunn. "We'd be foolish not to try and take advantage of that."

Already, Bird has become one of the most recognizable people in King County. The team has plastered local papers with her face, scheduled her for more interviews and community appearances than Mayor Greg Nickels, and even minted bobbleheads in her likeness (they'll be given out at the July 20 game). In late April, Bird threw out the first pitch at a Mariners game. Then, of course, was the Player Blitz.

This exposure is only the beginning. Over the next few months, Karen Bryant, the Storm's vice president of basketball operations, says Bird is slated to record dozens of radio spots for affiliate KJR-AM and is scheduled to headline additional community events all over the Seattle area. "To be honest, we're only at the very early stages of identifying how we plan to market Sue to the Seattle area," she says, adding that down the road, the team may focus on Bird to expand current marketing efforts that target woman and girls to include men and boys as well.

Whatever the future may bring, early reports indicate that these marketing efforts are paying off, big-time. Storm officials say that since they drafted Bird, ticket package sales have virtually doubled, from about 300 total accounts to nearly 600, and that roughly 30 percent of new season-ticket holders specifically referenced Bird when asked to qualify their interest. For the first time, the Storm sold out one of its preseason games, and at every home game, the loudest cheers have been for Bird. Even in team stores, replica jerseys with Bird's name and number are the team's all-time best-selling player merchandise, hands down.

"Only a handful of people around here have ever seen her play, but still, everybody just loves her," Bryant says. "From where we stand, from a marketing point of view, that is truly amazing."

More Than a Star

At league headquarters in Manhattan, WNBA president Val Ackerman hears statements like these and breathes a sigh of relief. Though the six-year-old league has become the longest running women's professional sports league in the U.S., it's no secret that the WNBA is in dire straits. Nationwide attendance peaked in 1998 with an average of nearly 11,000 fans per game, but since then, the league has grown from 12 to 16 teams and interest has declined by almost 20 percent, to an average attendance of just over 9,000. TV ratings have fallen from 1.5 in 1998 to 1.1 last year.

Here in Seattle, where the Storm has won 16 games in two years, the situation is even worse. Of the 16 teams in the league, the Storm ranks dead last in attendance, and though statistics show the Jet City is a terrific television market for other sports, only six of the Storm's 32 games this season will be broadcast on local TV, some of the worst media saturation in the entire country. (The WNBA just announced that Oxygen will air three games.) Even after Howard Schultz's recent purchase of the franchise, these numbers still have Ackerman and her colleagues concerned. Publicly, they talk about expansion teams in cities such as San Antonio and Oakland over the next two years; privately, however, sources say league officials have not ruled out relocating some of the franchises that can't seem to catch on, such as the Storm.

"We're still in the early stages of a business, but we don't have the luxury of time," Ackerman told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer earlier this year, noting that 15 attempts to create a women's professional league have failed since 1975. "[Survival] is a fact of life for us."

Bird could change all of that, and league spokesperson Traci Cook says her colleagues plan to incorporate Bird into marketing endeavors that should draw more national and local attention to the Storm. Bird took the first step on her own—last month she signed The Firm and Management One, a pair of powerful, high-profile management companies, to help her work with the league for increased exposure. Almost immediately, the agents facilitated a contract on Bird's behalf with Nike, for whom Bird will don the Swoosh symbol on and off the court for the next three years (despite the cover image, there are no announced plans for an "Air Bird" campaign).

Bird's agents also helped get her on national TV. On May 31, she appeared on Lifetime for a day-in-the-life-type program, and on May 24, she appeared on Fox Sports Network's The Best Damn Sports Show, Period. During the 10-minute interview with Fox, hosts Chris Rose and Tom Arnold fawned all over her, saying she should be the next Revlon girl and calling her "beautiful" at least a dozen times. Though Bird appeared uncomfortable with this flattery—constantly fidgeting with her sleeves and hair—she later shrugged it off by saying, "They don't get women on that show too much," and deemed it a "learning experience" she'll never forget.

"That's what I love about Sue, she always makes the best of things and is very mature for her age," says Constance Schwartz, vice president of strategic marketing for The Firm and Bird's direct contact there. "When you think about it, Sue is really the anti-Britney—self-confident without being arrogant, sexy but strong, feminine but still athletic, and fun. That's the message we want to convey. Lucky for us, it's also the message she's most comfortable with."

This message comes across loud and clear in Bird's next big marketing endeavor—a league-sponsored national commercial that debuts later this week. The ad depicts Bird being Bird—horsing around, shaking her booty, and rapping a song by Notorious B.I.G. It is part of a WNBA series titled "Who I Am" and is designed to market stars as people first, players second. Bird says she likes the ad because it conveys the impression that no matter how she plays on the court, off the court, she's just another girl.

"What I represent is very similar to what's up in the world," explains Bird. "I'm a regular girl from a regular family who grew up in a normal town in suburban New York. There's nothing fancy about who I am. I'm [5 feet 9 inches] and I like to do stuff. Anyone can be what I am."

Who She Is

But, really, who is Sue Bird? To hear her tell it, she has "two different personalities—one for basketball, and one for everything else." Off the court, Bird likes to dance, laugh, and generally behave the way most 21-year-olds do. At the Player Blitz, she stuck Storm stickers on the backs of innocent passersby, smirking all the while. Later that day, when she ordered a soda at Sbarro's, she reached for her wallet to pay, only to realize she had no cash and needed to hit the ATM. Friends and family say this is quintessentially Bird—free-spirited, spontaneous, and a total ham.

Hang out with Bird and you'll see that she spends hours on the phone, chatting most frequently with former UConn teammate Swin Cash, Mom and Dad, friends back East, and with Jennifer, her older sister, who's in law school at Yale. She also sleeps a lot— at least nine hours a night—as a result, she says she hasn't had much of a chance to explore her Belltown neighborhood beyond the grocery store. When she does go out, it's usually for a leisurely dinner with Randall, Adia Barnes, or one of her other teammates. As for her love life, there's always time for men, but after breaking it off with someone at UConn earlier this year, the "happily" single Bird just isn't looking for anything serious.

"I think I have enough to worry about," Bird jokes. "Beside, I don't think I've been out [to party] here once. I'm not sure I'd know where to go."

On the court, Bird always knows. In the home opener against the New York Liberty last week, the rookie showed the mettle of a veteran, dishing the rock like Gary Payton, nailing three pointers the way Sam Perkins used to do it—nothing but net. Bird says much of her performance stems from instinct but adds that when she gets the ball, she reads the opposing defense, looks for mismatches, then tries to take advantage, either by passing or shooting it herself. Bird's mentality is: No matter whom she's up against, she thinks she has the advantage and knows she'll succeed.

"People who say women aren't raised to be competitive haven't met Sue," says Maria Conlon, a junior at UConn who played with Bird for three years. "Whether it's basketball or a game of cards, she never wants to settle for being second-rate."

"I've been scouting Sue Bird throughout her entire career, but I am still impressed by her poise," Dunn said after the game. "She knows how to play the game, and she knows what it takes to win. As a coach, that's exactly the kind of player I want on my team."

Trial by Fire

However people estimate Sue Bird, however Storm and WNBA executives plan to make her a star, no amount of marketing will pay off if she can't deliver on the court. So far, it seems, she'll make the transition from college just fine—she averaged 10.3 points per game in four preseason contests, scored 18 points and made six assists against the New York Liberty in her first game as a professional on May 30, and scored 14 in an impressive and dominating win at Portland on Sunday. Still, those who have been around the league say it could be difficult for Bird to adjust to the physical demands of life in the WNBA.

First, they say, is the stress of playing games on back-to-back nights, something the Storm will do six times between June 14 and Aug. 13. Next is the issue of traveling—though Bird took a few extended road trips in four years of college, she'll make a number of weeklong trips as a pro, which could wear her down mentally as well as physically. Finally, there's the level of play itself; Dunn says the Western Conference is more competitive this year than ever and that Bird and fellow rookies Felicia Ragland and Takeisha Lewis could get beaten up over the course of a 32-game schedule.

"This is not college ball," warns Dunn. "I think the biggest challenge for Sue will be to adjust to getting knocked around every night."

Off the court, there are challenges as well. Bird doesn't know anyone in Seattle except her teammates. Seattleites generally don't take kindly to East Coasters, and with her jaywalking and frequent cursing in practice, Bird is more New York than New York Vinnie.

She says she likes what she considers to be a more "relaxed" pace of life in the Northwest. Some might say she's gotten the hang of it already: Though she doesn't drink coffee, she has thrown and caught fish at Pike Place Market, and, as a New York Mets fan, she despises the Yankees—something to which every true Seattleite can relate.

On a professional level, she perceives the pressures of performing in the WNBA and revitalizing a floundering franchise as simply part of the job. She knows she must lead the Storm to the playoffs, an expectation Dunn has made clear from the very beginning. At the same time, she understands that it's just as important to get people interested in women's hoops as a whole, adding that she'll do "whatever it takes" to make the Storm a household name, both locally and around the league.

"I understand what's at stake," she says, referring to the future of the WNBA. "If I go out and play the way I know how to play, if I go out and do whatever sort of marketing the team or league wants me to do, only good can come."

info@seattleweekly.com

 
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